by Mike Neff
Heading into the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season there are several aspects of the racing that are going to be different for the teams. One of the big changes facing crews and especially crew chiefs is the loss of an over-the-wall crew member. With the addition of the self venting dump can there will no longer be a catch can man servicing the cars so the teams will be limited to six crew members over the wall. Since the catch can man was generally used to make the chassis adjustments during the pit stops in years past the teams are faced with the dilemma of who will now perform those functions and it appears as though that strategy is going to be a very fluid situation, at least as the season begins in Daytona.
Several of the crew chiefs spoke to this new scenario as the 2011 Sprint Cup Media Tour kicked off in Concord, NC. Tony Gibson and Darian Grubb, crew chiefs for Stewart-Haas racing, explained that their organization has been running through hundreds of situations trying to figure out the optimal use of their pit crew members during that race. Gibson’s big concern about the stops is that the new fuel nozzle takes longer to dump the can into the car than the old system. Added to that fact is the loss of the catch can man which means that the gas man has to stay with the can for the entire dumping process. In the past the catch can man would hold onto the can as it neared completion and the gas man could retrieve the second can, thereby almost eliminating any down time during the fueling process. With the gas man now having to finish the first can before returning it over the wall and retrieving the second can, it appears that it will take in the neighborhood of 14 seconds to completely fill the gas tank. The gas man has now become the most critical part of the pit stop because the faster he can make the transition from the first to the second can, the faster the entire pit stop is going to be. Unfortunately, the gas man is also the most logical person to make the chassis adjustments during the stops with the new over the wall allotment of crew men so teams are going to be forced to make some different decisions based on the scenarios presented to them during the race.
The other option for teams is to have the tire carrier make the adjustments, but the carrier must remain in contact with the tire as it is brought back to the pit wall, so having them try and make adjustments and keep a handle on the tires may prove to be an even greater detriment to the time of the overall pit stop. If the tire carrier is used he’ll most likely be late in getting back to the left side of the car and the result will be even slower change times for the left rear change. As teams work through these possibilities an endless array for solutions are being presented to the crew chiefs and the end result is that fans may very well see something resembling NFL style play calls during races when it comes to pit stop execution.
Grubb and Gibson both shared that they have run through over 100 different situations that could present themselves during the race. Grubb admitted that the team is even considering having the pit crew members wear wristbands similar to those worn by NFL quarterbacks with a list of the different pit “plays” so that the crew chief can simply call out a number and all of the members of the crew will know what their duties are for a given stop. The crew members are going to have to think very quickly on their feet because, if a driver makes a call on the way down pit lane that alters the initial plan, most of the members of the crew are going to have to switch their responsibilities for the stop. A tire carrier who was going to simply carry the tire to the right side of the car might now make an adjustment and then hold the gas can as the gas man retrieves the second can, or may come around the car and retrieve the second can so that the gas man can stick with the first one. The crew chiefs have been reviewing tapes of old races and trying to identify all of the different possibilities so that they are prepared for anything come race day in Daytona.
Brian Pattie made the observation that the gas man used to be about the least important member of the pit crew because their job was completed in the fastest amount of time and therefore seldom impacted the speed of a stop. Now the gas man is at least the third most important member behind the tire changer and the jack man, if not the most important of all of the members going over the wall. The gas man is now going to have to be the tallest, strongest and most agile member of the team because their ability to engage the can and transition between the two cans is going to dictate the speed of the entire stop.
Gibson noted that the gas man is going to have to be at least 6’2” in order to handle the increased height of the new dump cans. They are also going to have to be very precise because the new fuel nozzle has to be engaged perfectly or the flow of fuel is dramatically reduced and could cause the stop to go well over 15 seconds. He also feels that there will be many times this season where crew chiefs will make calls to not wait on the gas and take the extra speed of the stop over the fuel mileage that will be lost by not filling the entire tank. He feels that the series championship very well could be decided by the crew chief who makes the right calls and has the flags fall properly for him during the crucial times of the races this year.
Most of the crew chiefs felt that the possibility of NASCAR assigning qualifying position by best practice times is not going to affect how they approach their race weekends. Most of them stated that they unload their cars in race trim and will work primarily on making it handle well in that configuration before turning their focus to qualifying and trying to lay down a quick practice time. They agreed that it is easier to make a good handling race trim car run a fast qualifying lap than to make a quick qualifier run well in race trim. All of them did agree that the movement by several tracks to Saturday qualifying is going to make a difference in how they approach their weekends because it eliminates a race practice after qualifying and that could make replicating race conditions difficult when there is no race time practice for two days before a race.
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